Video and transcript: Chancellor Bonnie D. Irwin delivers 2021 State of the University Address

State of the University
Bonnie D. Irwin
Chancellor, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo
March 31, 2021

Bonnie D. Irwin
Bonnie D. Irwin

He honua ‘ōiwi ‘o Hawaiʻi nona ka po‘e ‘ōiwi o ka ‘āina, ‘o ia nā kānaka Hawai‘i.

Aia kēia kulanui ma kēia ahupua‘a ‘o Waiākea, ma ka moku ‘o Hilo.

Kū nō ke Kulanui o Hawai‘i ma Hilo i ka ho‘ohiki a Ke Kulanui o Hawai‘i e ho‘oulu i ke ola o ke kaiāulu ‘ōiwi ma o ka hana kālaʻike ma nā kahua kula he ‘umi o ka ‘ōnaehana papahana ho‘ōiwi kulanui i kapa ‘ia ‘o Hawai‘i Papa O Ke Ao.

He leo aloha kēia i ka po‘e a pau e ‘ākoakoa ana i ‘aneʻi.

Hawai‘i is an indigenous space whose original people are today identified as Native Hawaiians. The university is in the land division called Waiākea, in the district of Hilo. The University of Hawai‘i at Hilo aligns with the University of Hawai‘i System’s commitment to fostering the wellbeing of indigenous communities through academic processes put into effect with the ten-campus, system-wide transformation called Hawai‘i Papa O Ke Ao. This land acknowledgement welcomes everyone who gathers here.

Aloha mai kākou.

A little over a year ago, I was preparing to deliver a State of the University address, the first that would have been made by University of Hawai‘i at Hilo chancellor in several years.  COVID-19, however, had other plans for us, and thus I ended up incorporating parts of those remarks in blogs and Zoom sessions. As we emerge from the pandemic, however, it is time to take stock, and look ahead, and thus I welcome you to this physical and virtual space today.

COVID accomplishments

And let us begin with COVID. Our ‘ohana has stepped up in more ways that I can possibly recognize here today, but I want to offer some mahalos:

  • Auxiliary and Environmental Health and Safety staff for making sure our spaces were properly cleaned and sanitized, rooms measured and arranged for proper distancing, and erecting signage across campus.
  • Our campus security, who continued to make their rounds ensuring campus protocols were followed.
  • Our student housing staff who worked tirelessly, checking out those students who needed to leave and keeping those who decided to stay safe and secure. For some of our students, our campus was the safest place for them to be, and we made the commitment early on that we would keep our residence halls open for those who needed us.
  • Procurement staff worked creatively to find us needed supplies where they could, even when shortages challenged them and facilitated the emergency purchase of laptops so that we could issue them to faculty and staff in a timely way.
  • Library and IT staff kept computer labs open and running and sanitized so that students had a place to come to continue their course work.
  • Distance learning faculty and staff quickly set up workshops for faculty to convert their classes to virtual delivery.
  • Instructional faculty, in the space of only a week, moved their classes online, reached out to students, and kept them on task.
  • Our academic affairs staff who assisted with schedule changes, fiscal processes, and room preparation.
  • Advisors and Counselors found ways to serve students both near and far and were available to answer the phone, keep the office open, and continue to support our students.
  • Our enrollment staff, admission and financial aid, despite the pandemic, still brought in one of the largest freshman classes in our history.
  • Financial Aid and the cashiers office staff pushed out waves of emergency aid to students, including CARES funds.
  • RCUH staff helped to set up those CARES accounts and create the systems we needed to allocate the funds.
  • Staff in our clinical and science programs devised ways to hold in-person activities in safe ways.
  • Our athletics staff came together to create safety protocols to allow students to practice and compete.
  • Our Student Life Center provided sanitization protocols and virtual experiences to help our community stay healthy.
  • Our student affairs staff came up with creative ways to welcome and engage students and still keep everyone safe.
  • Our chartered student organizations continued to live up to those charters by creatively planning safe face-to-face activities and virtual programs.
  • Our faculty once again pivoted quickly and got their classes ready for the online or f2f environment.
  • Our EEO/TIX staff, knowing the danger some in our community face, held a virtual domestic violence summit.
  • Our College of Pharmacy created health videos and along with their colleagues in nursing, helped administer the vaccines.
  • Our commencement team designed and held a virtual commencement in spring, and virtual and drive through fall commencement and is working to prepare a similar event for spring.
  • Through it all, vice chancellors, deans, and directors helped steered the ship, making decisions efficiently, and increasing their collaboration across divisions, helping to keep everyone calm and on task, and creating space for us to continue our work.
  • Our communications and web teams helped us to keep the campus informed of every twist and turn as we responded to state, county, and university System guidelines and orders.

And continue we did. Our community supported us as well. Vibrant Hawaii contributed to food distribution for our food insecure students formerly served by our food pantry. The county offered help with sanitization and helped ‘Imiloa set up an educational program for local keiki. Our local hotels helped with student quarantine.

And lest I forget our students, the amazing, resilient, hardworking students we have, volunteered in the community and continue to do so; they kept up with their classes despite family obligations, internet challenges, and layoffs; and they stepped up to help faculty and fellow students adjust to the online environment.

Although that was an extensive list, there may be a few more that I inadvertently missed and please know that I appreciate all of you.

I congratulate you all on your dedication, your creativity, and your resilience. I hope over holidays, breaks, and weekends you have found needed time to rest and refresh. I am grateful for everyone in our ‘ohana for what you have accomplished and how you have supported one another. Through it all, our campus community has worn masks, washed hands frequently, and perhaps the most difficult in the Aloha state, kept a physical distance from one another. We have learned—as we have so many times in the past when we have faced lava and hurricanes—how strong we are when we pull together and work for the good of all.

As we approach the end of the academic year, I have one additional COVID-related request for everyone. Please get a vaccine. If you do not have a medical or religious reason not to, get a vaccine.  It is our kuleana to keep both our campus and island community safe. Universities are institutions that lead the way, following the science and taking responsibility. Please get a vaccine.

Where we are today

Despite all of the challenges, the general state of the campus is good, and I believe the outlook is bright.

Here is snapshot of our fall enrolment. We were once again named by US News & World Report as the most diverse national university, and you can see the evidence of that here. We still serve considerably more women than men, which is a nationwide trend, but something we definitely need to pay attention to, especially as it pertains to students from Hawai‘i Island. Another national trend is a decrease in international enrollment, which was certainly not helped by the pandemic. I am looking forward to welcoming more international and out-of-state students back to our campus soon, but we are the university of Hawai‘i Island, and that fact is also borne out in this data, which shows that over 70% of our enrollment is in-state and over 50% is from our island. The reflects our primary responsibility. Pictured here is Kekoa Harmon chanting with his class online. Kekoa found that by teaching online, he could engage not only his students but also their families in the learning of Hawaiian language.

Our faculty, while diverse, does not reflect the diversity of our students, which means we need to work extra hard to make sure that our students feel seen, heard, and supported, AND we need to do a better job during recruitments to ensure diverse pools of applicants so that we may further diversity the faculty. The majority of our faculty (178 of 271) are tenured or tenure-track, which provides stability to our campus and our educational mission. Marianne Takamiya of the Physics and Astronomy Department, pictured on this slide, is an international faculty member who spoke of the way she values our diversity and the fact that the campus is a “melting pot of ideas.”

As is typical at a regional university, our staff diversity does reflect that of our students, and I am especially proud of the fact that so many of our staff are alumni.  When a graduate opts to stay at the university and look for work here, it is a reflection of the quality of their experience as a student. Their own journeys through the university enable them to better assist students in theirs. Chelsea Kay Wong, pictured on this slide, started working in the registrar’s office as an Upward Bound student intern and now directs the unit.

Our diverse ‘ohana is a tremendous asset to our community and to the education we provide. Our students become accustomed to living and working in this environment. Our diversity is our strength, a fact that we have communicated to WSCUC in our recent  institutional self-study for accreditation.

Let us now turn to some trend data.

Our total enrollment decreased from fall to fall. Student enrollment in Fall 2020 was 6% less than Fall 2019. Given the way enrollments across the country decreased due to the pandemic, however, I am pleased that we held on as well as we did. Before the pandemic, we were definitely slowing the trend, with enrollment being down only 1% from 2018 to 2019.

The first-time freshman enrollment trend is far more positive, and continues to grow. The work of the Educational Advisory Board with our dedicated admissions and financial aid staff has definitely helped here as well as the efforts people across campus put into open house events and answering questions from prospective students. Business, Psychology, Marine Science, and Kinesiology and Exercise Science continue to be our most popular programs. Our transfer numbers are down, due in large part to a decline in transfers from our sister campus Hawai‘i Community College. This decline speaks to the need to strengthen and streamline our pathways from the UH CCs as well as from colleges in the Pacific and on the continent.

We also continue to serve first-generation students well. Alongside this data is a photo of Nina Cardoza, a graduate of Honoka‘a HS, and now a doctor of pharmacy. She was able to get a college degree and pursue her career close to home because of UH Hilo. Many of you who are alumni might also have been the first in your family to graduate from the university.  If you are comfortable, share those stories with students. They will be inspired by your success.

On this slide, there are two trends I would like to direct your attention to. Pell recipient numbers are down, which may look at first like a good sign, that there is less need in our state and on our island. I suspect, however, that it is more a sign of students from low-income families not seeing a path to higher education. The CARES federal relief money and other emergency aid we delivered to students certainly has helped, but this is another area to which we must attend. Our number of students of Hawaiian ancestry remains robust, accounting for over a third of our enrollment and growing. Serving these students is a major part of our kuleana as a Hawaiian serving institution.

Our freshman-to-sophomore retention is good but it could be better. While we know some students come here for a year or two and transfer to a school on the continent or to Manoa, this is an area we need to study, as many of our aspirational peer institutions hover closer to 80% retention. Still, the last two years are better than the three before that, so we are definitely moving in the right direction. Retention is the key to growing our enrollment. The more students who have good experiences here and are successful, the more students will want to attend our university.

Our graduation rates are certainly influenced by our retention rates. The good news is that the average time to degree is under five years. The not-so-good news, is that not enough students are graduating. We shall be directing our attention even more strongly to student success in the new strategic plan, which I will get to in a minute. If students are leaving UH Hilo because they find another path more suited to fulfilling their educational and life dreams, that is okay. If, however, they are leaving for a financial, academic, or personal reason that we can help with, we can and should be there for them. A student leaving college with debt and no degree, which happens far too often across the higher education landscape, is a situation that we must do whatever we can to mitigate here at Hilo.

For those of you who are not fans of line graphs, here is much the same information on our strategic directions scorecard. We should be rightly proud that most of these indicators are green. Despite the fact that enrollments are down, we are meeting our targets for degrees earned. I’d like to draw our attention to the “Credits to degree section.” Most, if not all, baccalaureate degrees should be able to be earned in 120-125 credits, and while we are moving these measures in the right direction, we need to look at our transfer pathways to find out why students are taking on more than a semester’s worth of extra credits to graduate.

We’ve been talking about budget a lot this year, and while I am more optimistic about the next few years than I was several months ago, we need to stay fiscally conservative. Mahalo to all of you who have found ways to save large and small amounts over the course of the last year. Despite the decrease in state funds, we are still fortunate in Hawai‘i that the state picks up close to half our expenses, which means less cost that we have to pass on to families. As you can see from this graph, however, we are still also heavily dependent upon enrollment for revenue. Through conservative budgeting, we have been able to keep our tuition reserve strong, which will help us make investments in the future. In the long term, diversifying our revenue through grants, donations, and other sources will help us stabilize our budget. The legislature still has not decided our g-funds budget for the next biennium, but it is now looking as though the cuts will not be as deep as the governor originally proposed. We have been able to re-instate the sabbaticals that were postponed last year. I am grateful for the understanding and patience shown by these faculty.

One reason that we have a little breathing room in the budget is the Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds, the third wave of which we are expecting soon. These are not shown on this chart, but have been of great assistance. With this support, we have been able to give emergency funds to students, employ more students on campus, purchase sanitization supplies and PPE, and to provide professional development for faculty and staff in the online environment. We have been able to fund some lecturer positions and some temporary staff in critical areas. We have also upgraded the technology in our classrooms to facilitate online, hyrbrid, and especially hyflex courses.

As we move into the summer and fall, we will be supporting many of these same things, especially student aid, professional development related to the online environment, and technology upgrades to improve workflow processes to get us away from paper forms and manual processes which take valuable staff and faculty time away from our primary mission of serving students. The federal relief funding is one-time money and has many restrictions as to how we can spend it, but my goal is to spend a significant part of it on our people to make students’ educational journeys smoother and employees’ professional activity more efficient and rewarding.

Two other important sources of funding are donations and grants. We are fortunate that our community supports us to the extent that they do. We will be working on refining our UH Hilo story over the coming months in order to continue to grow our community’s investments in our institution and the work we do.

One of the ways we show our value to the community is through research and this slide shows grant activity over the course of the last five years. Much of our extramural support comes by way of service awards, such as Title III grants, which support our Kipuka Center for Native Hawaiian Students, programs for Pacific Islander students, and Ka Haka ‘Ula o Ke‘elikolani College of Hawaiian Language. Despite their teaching responsibilities, our faculty bring in significant funding for their research, much of which also enables our students to get valuable research experience alongside faculty mentors. The campus research council, working with Vice Chancellor Roney, is working on ways to give faculty more support in applying for competitive grants. On this slide, we see but a few examples of research on our ‘āina and ocean environments: from whales, coral reefs, taro and ‘ohia all benefit from the work of our faculty and students. Further enabled by drone technology and data science, research at UH Hilo makes a difference in our environment.

Much of what I have covered in the foregoing slides is available for further review on our website on the Institutional Research, UH Hilo Stories, and Long Range Budget Planning Committee web pages, but I know that many of you have logged on more to hear about where are going, not where we are.

A Vision for the Future

Strategic planning activity was already well under way when I arrived in Hilo nearly two years ago. I read the materials from the pre-planning activities and visited with units across campus to talk story and hear what the strengths and concerns of this campus were. I heard about the desire to work across college and divisional lines; I heard pride in our hands-on learning opportunities and a wish that we could do more; I heard well deserved pride in our diversity, but I also heard from those who did not feel that we were here for them. I saw potential everywhere and a desire to enroll more students and to be able to support those students better.

On one level our mission is simple, we exist to educate students and confer degrees and certificates. But I know for all of us, our mission and vision are so much more than that.  The University of Hawai‘i at Hilo exists to improve the quality of life on this island, in this state, and in the greater Pacific region. Our purpose is to empower leaders who will cultivate opportunity in our communities. We challenge students to reach their academic, personal, and professional goals through hands-on learning in our rich natural and cultural environment. We recognize that one learns through many sources— ʻAʻohe pau ka ʻike i ka hālau hoʻokahi—and thus we recognize that our campus ‘ohana has much to learn from the ‘āina and our community. A learning institution must be an institution that learns, and in order to learn, we need to listen, to our students, our community and to one another.

Through all this listening, three strategic goals have emerged:

  1. Supporting Student Success with a Focus on Equity
  2. Strengthening Our Relationship with Our Region
  3. Supporting and Strengthening Our Campus Culture

Goal 1: Improving Student Success with a Focus on Equity

I mentioned earlier that our diversity is our strength, but that is only truly meaningful if we focus on equity, removing barriers to opportunity, fair treatment, and access for all. WE must believe that all students can learn. Diversity goes beyond racial and ethnic identity and includes gender identity, sexual orientation, one’s unique abilities and challenges, and one’s background and lived experience. Imagine a UH Hilo where every student feels supported in their identity and their life’s journey. The newly constituted Committee for Excellence in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has already begun this important work, but they cannot do the equity work alone. It must become part of everything we do.

If we attend to our mission, our enrollment will rise. A student-ready institution focused on student success is an institution in which transfer students feel affirmed rather than thinking they may have lost out by starting their educational journey elsewhere. An institution focused on student success is one in which every employee knows that they play a role in ensuring students thrive. This can be as simple as asking a student what their goal is for their education or asking them how their midterm exam went. It includes smiling when we see a student on campus or helping a student find the answer to a question instead of merely sending them to another office. I keep a ti-leaf rose on my desk, given to me in Fall 2019 by a student who was in crisis. While I could not solve the crisis for her, as we found ourselves on opposite sides of the Maunakea controversy, I could listen, and this ti-leaf rose reminds me to make the time to listen and lead with my heart when I can.

An institution focused on student success is one in which academic and student affairs units collaborate, where faculty and staff collaborate, and where we make decisions with students in mind. That is not to say that we can meet every single need of every single student, but it does mean pushing ourselves out of our own comfort zones for the sake of our students and always with equity at the forefront. At a UH Hilo focused on student success, every student, regardless of background, will have access to the best that UH Hilo has to offer. As more students persist and graduate, more students will choose UH Hilo because they will see it as a place where students flourish.

In order to create this student-ready institution, we will listen to students and prospective students; we will analyze our policies and processes to make sure that they are equitable and supportive; we will continue to strive for a welcoming environment in which students have role models who look like them; we will study our data in order to determine which programs are most successful for our students. In order to create a student-ready, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander serving institution, we will continue to ground our work in Hawaiian values. We will work on continuous improvement of both academic and support programs so that students will not only thrive while on our campus but also be successful when they graduate. This includes keeping academic programs up to date and relevant through program review and improvement as well as building out career services. We will use some of the federal relief funding to support peer assistants, whose own success can help lead the way for their junior peers.

Goal 2: Strengthening our Relationship with Our Region

During the recent county sustainability summit, one of the speakers stated that this island is a gift, and I truly believe that to be true. This island lives and grows like no other place on earth, as we are often reminded by earthquakes and lava flows.

The Importance of Place Strategic Doing Committee has examined how place impacts academics, the student experience, hiring and retention, professional development, promotion and tenure, community engagement, regional education and economic needs, research and collaborative efforts, campus culture, and our physical facility. One of the sustainable products of this committee is Ka Leo o ka Uluau, a 24-episode podcast, with installments released twice monthly in 2021. The purpose of the podcast is to hoʻokamaʻāina listeners to the island of Hawaiʻi, starting in Hilo and moving clockwise around the island (Puna, Kaʻū, Kona, Kohala, and Hāmākua).  Episodes acquaint listeners with key places, histories, people, traditions, and lessons from each place.

Our future success as an institution is inextricably linked to the future of this island. Our county has one of the lowest college-going rates in the state, but as we partner with our pre-K through 14 partners, we can encourage more students to consider college. On the other end of the pathway, we will continue to work with public and private sector employers to create internship opportunities and ensure that jobs are available for our students as they graduate. Part of this cycle is continuing to improve our offerings in areas such as allied health and education, two areas in which local employers have perennial shortages of skilled workers; another part is working across the UH System and the state to develop new employment sectors as we try to further diversify our economy.

In addition, we will ensure that the meaning, quality, and integrity of our degrees (to use the WSCUC terminology) includes a strong connection to the ‘āina and the community through hands-on learning experiences. True partnership with this place and its people translates into ideas, collaborative learning and research, reciprocal relationships that make a difference in the local, regional, and global lives of people, and contributes to a resilient and sustainable future for Hawai‘i. Where we can, we will align our efforts with those of the community. Discussions of cross- and inter-disciplinary programs has already begun in academic affairs. We can design curriculum that engages students around issues that they find important. When students see the way in which what they study has an impact on their community, they participate in that study more deeply and are more successful. Applied learning experiences from research to internships to service to travel must be available to every student, so that every student, whether they were born here or arrived from elsewhere to study here feels the power and meaningfulness of this place and wants to malama ‘āina.

Former VC Hon related to me that he recently heard a member of our local community liken UH Hilo to a snow globe, a pretty thing that was dropped onto the island and that people were proud to have around, but frustrated that, for many, there seemed to be no way in. That image has stayed with me as I contemplate our relationship with the community.  Can we become a public garden instead, where our community, from keiki to kupuna, feels welcome and inspired? We have expertise and intellectual resources to share; we live in this community; we are part of this community. I invite each of you to contemplate what that means for the work we do.

Goal 3: Supporting and Strengthening Our Campus Culture

Our first two goals require sustained effort, skill, and collaboration. They deserve our best selves, but no one person needs to feel that they are alone in this work. A healthy university is one in which people support their colleagues.  While they may work with humility, they are proud of the institution and feel that their efforts are recognized and rewarded. Personal humility, organizational pride: if we focus on our mission of improving the quality of life of our students and our community, it is far easier to trust one another and support one another. I know we can do this because we have been doing this for the past year in response to the COVID crisis. We need to take those instincts that allow us to pull together in a crisis and make them part of how we operate all the time.

As we move from crisis management to strategic planning and growth, we will find new ways to incorporate gratitude for one another in our day-to-day activity.

This includes but goes beyond supervisors telling employees when they are doing a good job; it means peers appreciating the work of one another and offering to lend a hand when a colleague is having a bad day or facing a challenge. On my desk is a challenge coin from Washington, DC., gifted to me by a faculty member when I was a dean. This faculty member was a pain in the neck at the time (I did not use the word “neck”), a staunch advocate for his program, his facilities, and his students, but he would also show up on weekends to help out at a community art fair; he would stay after hours if students needed his advice, and he was an amazing teacher and mentor. I keep the coin on my desk to remind me that even dissenting voices are worth listening to, and that I should look past surface disagreements to see the contributions that each member of our ‘ohana makes to the success of our students. I invite you to join me in this effort.  Smile, express gratitude, look out for one another.

Along with colleagues across the system, we are looking to build a stronger and future-focused, student-centered organizational infrastructure by improving facilities and operations. Strengthening our culture also means that we provide employees with the tools that they need to be successful, from onboarding to professional development, and that we hold each member of our ‘ohana accountable for their responsibilities. It is crucial that we do our best to align training and reward structures with our mission and vision. To that end, we will be developing more professional development opportunities for employees and reviewing our tenure and promotion guidelines to make sure that faculty receive credit for the critical work they do such as mentoring student research, community-engaged scholarship, and high-quality teaching.

The equity values in our first goal area must also be applied to faculty and staff as we review our policies and procedures to make sure that we nurture our diversity and support equity.


In the coming weeks, we will circulate a draft strategic plan that further elucidates these goals and an action plan with strategies for campus and community comment. These three goals may not encompass everything that every person might want to see, but they will enable us to build on our strengths and create a sustainable future for our university and our community.  Too often in the history of UH Hilo good ideas have arisen and then faded when a single advocate moved on or the funding ran out. In a post pandemic UH Hilo, we do not want to go back to “normal.” We must rise up and do better, guided by our values and building on what we have learned about ourselves over the last year.

By focusing our efforts, partnering with our community, and paying attention to our students’ needs, we can and will institutionalize and sustain successful initiatives, as well as hold space for innovation and evolution. We will need to make strategic investments of time and money to forward these goals and build on our strengths. We will need to figure out what we can stop doing in order to hold space for the things that will forward our vision to be the university our community deserves. In the end, the three strategic goals I have outlined today come down to commitments: a commitment to our students, a commitment to this place, and a commitment to one another. Let these commitments guide our journey as together we fulfill the potential that UH Hilo has always had within it. Our students and our community deserve no less. We know who we are, and we know what kind of university this island needs. We know we are strong, and we know we can do this.

I mua! And Malama pono.  (And by the way, please get a vaccine!)